Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad has put it at odds with other countries in the Arab world.
Russia drew a lot of flack from Arab countries and the West when it vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Assad to stop his crackdown on protesters. That has some analysts in Russia doubting whether the Kremlin really has a cogent strategy for the Middle East.
The dilemma for Russia policy in the Arab world can be illustrated by two very different events that took place this week.
On Tuesday, crowds of Assad supporters in Damascus greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the country’s foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov.
Lavrov said Russia was willing to serve as a mediator in the conflict, although Assad’s forces continued their assault on the opposition. Meanwhile, a very different scenario was playing out in New York.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, appeared at a hastily called news conference to deny rumors that he had threatened the prime minister of Qatar. The rumors, which were widely circulated in the Arab media, said Churkin had warned the Qatari leader that Russia would “wipe Qatar off the map.”
“There was nothing, not even any hints of any threats, intimidation, rudeness from me or from the prime minister of Qatar, for that matter,” Churkin said.
Russia’s relations with Qatar have been strained since December, when customs officials in Doha allegedly manhandled Russia’s ambassador to that country.
Although Churkin denied using any bullying tactics, he added something that sounded vaguely like a warning.
“Apparently somebody is trying very hard in order to drive a wedge between Russia and the Arab world. If it’s somebody who is really coming from the Arab world, I think there is a very good Russian saying, which they, I think, should keep in mind: ‘Don’t spit into a well. You may well need it for a drink of water,’ ” he said.
At this point, it’s unclear who needs whom.
Analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, says Russia doesn’t really need Syria as a trading partner. He says Russia’s support for Syria is part of a pragmatic effort to contain Islamic extremism by balancing opposing factions.
“Russians understand there are no nondictatorship regimes in the Middle East. There is no chance for democracy of the Western style in the Middle East. And we try to make balance,” Satanovsky says.
But other analysts say Russia needs to be careful of its image in the Arab world.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that Russia’s stand on Syria puts it at odds with important members of the Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia has enormous leverage on the global oil market. Saudi Arabia has resources that could be used to minimize Russia’s control of parts of its own country,” Trenin says. He means the North Caucasus, the region that includes volatile areas such as Chechnya.
Trenin says that what Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, tried to do in Damascus this week should have been done months ago, when the Arab Spring protests first erupted.
“If Russia wanted to uphold its prestige as an important player, it needed to engage more fully in looking for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict,” he says.
Both analysts say one of Russia’s main concerns is keeping a lid on Islamic radicalism, the kind that is spreading in the Muslim parts of Russia’s own territory.
Satanovsky says Russian policy seeks to play off the Islamic fundamentalist regimes of the Arab world against Iran.
In putting such strong and public support behind the Syrian regime, though, Russia has put itself at a pivot point in the major struggles of the Arab World.
It’s not clear whether it has a strategy to affect the balance there.